Tuesday, June 22, 2010

What is the virtual, anyway? 

In virtual worlds on Prezi - these are the four themes that seem to me to have dominated the virtual worlds seminar series (link). I'm just taking the first today, which is the problematic nature of notions of virtuality. I considered applying Lefebvre, because in a sense some virtual worlds seem to work in opposition to other spaces (heterotopias) and others seem to mirror them (isotopias) - but this sort of analysis hinges on the distinctiveness or even the separation of the virtual from the everyday and the series has made me question this. So that drives me back to interrogating the concept of the virtual. So we think of the virtual as 'almost', an approximation or a movement towards something more real; we regard it as an 'as if' world, a simulation of the more familiar, it is 'quite similar' to the everyday, but always, as Deleuze and Guattari suggest it is defined in relation to 'the real'. In our uses of the term virtual, the word reality is bracketed or elided. On Saturday I suggested that one of the most common uses of the word was in describing a virtual learning environment - a place where virtually no learning at all takes place! But our discussions on the virtual took us further on as we saw that many non-digital experiences shared the same charcteristics that have begun to associate with the virtual. Viewing film, immersive book reading, drama, role play and fantasy games are good examples of when an imaginative parallell world is conjured into being...and these sorts of experiences are interwoven with mundane reality just as virtual world gameplay is. Players and inhabitants of the metaverse engage in multiple textual worlds in which the distinction between online and offline becomes arbitrary. Constance Steinkuehler's 'constellation of literacy practices' is a very helpful description of this. There is a continual to-and-fro movement between RL and VL which suggests that any distinction between the two should be more precisely defined than we have tended to do so far.

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The rich to-and-fro between different channels/media is something which seems to be emerging in information behaviour research studies as well. Rather than distinguishing between the two more precisely, does it rather mean that distinguishing between "real life" and "virtual life" (as 2 distinct things) has in fact become pointless? It seems to call for some different and more specific kinds of categorisation (or perhaps throwing away the whole "real" vs virtual thing altogether)
This starts from the personal: I'm real in my digital or virtual life, and it's not an "almost" or "as if", it's life I'm living. I have started to avoid talking about "RL" (as in "I'm Sheila Webber in RL") to use phrases like "I'm Sheila Webber outside SL" - though actually that doesn't work either since I'm not Sheila Webber, for example, on Twitter, though I am on Facebook, and so on (and perhaps the name thing is a red herring).
Anyway, as I said, this constant (and "no big deal") movement between the physical and virtual is something emerging from research studies in information behaviour too.
Thanks for your thought-provoking comments, Sheila. Broadly speaking I agree. The more one looks at the terms (and the experience) the more the distinction between the real and the virtual begins to dissolve. There's one sticking point for me, though, and that's something to do with space and what is being referred to as 'eventedness'. So if we think of the ESRC event in Second Life, we could quite legitimately ask where it took place. As your attendance data shows we were geographically dispersed, inhabiting different sorts of physical locations (institutional, domestic and so on) and spread across a few time-zones. The infolit ischool is a great space for interaction, but it's probably best to think of it as a virtual space. So whilst I reckon we could quite usefully dump most of the virtual/real distinctions, we do still 'go' somewhere in SL and it's a different sort of journey and destination to going to Wolverhampton (just to pluck somewhere out of my virtual map of Engand).
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